Ukraine War: Interview with Ukrainian Head of Military Intelligence – Kirill Budanov

Ukrainskaya Pravda reporter Roman Kravets recently interviewed Kirill Budanov, Head of the Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense Intelligence Directorate. Appointed in 2020, Budanov has risen to become one of the most influential and authoritative sources of information about the war, cited in many international news articles. He was one of only a few Ukrainian government officials who publicly warned of imminent large-scale war with Russia starting last year, including the directions from which Russia could attack. He has been proven correct in his predictions thus far. In this rare intimate interview Budanov speaks about Vladimir Putin’s health, possible coup attempts in Russia, why the Ukrainian government did not better prepare the country for war, and his predictions for how the war will end among other topics. The following are English translation excerpts of the interview.

Kirill Budanov, Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, exclusive interview with Roman Kravets for Ukrayinska Pravda

Reporter: Recently, in an interview with foreign media, you said that the active phase of the war will finish by the end of this year, and in August there should be a turning point. Can you tell us in detail how the active phase of the war will finish by the end of the year and what should happen in August?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way – by August, the number of weapons supplied to Ukraine will have reached, so to speak, significant quantities. You must understand that from the time of the announcement that weapons will be supplied there are the following stages. First to bring the weapons into the country, second is the acquisition [by Ukrainian armed forces] of these weapons, and only in the third stage beginning to use them. This takes some time. Therefore, unfortunately, before August, the number of weapons needed by the troops will not be available in significant quantities. From August on, all this will be in military units and will be actively used in hostilities. That is why the turning point will begin [at that time]. Right now, we are catastrophically short of heavy weapons.

Reporter: And you say that the active phase [of the war] will conclude by the end of the year. Explain what this means and what will happen next?

Budanov: The active phase is the active conduct of hostilities. These are battles of about the same level that are taking place now when whole settlements are passing from hand to hand. This active phase should be significantly reduced by the end of the year. It will be reduced to almost zero.

Reporter: In what form will the war continue?

Budanov: When we reach our administrative borders. This will be the end of our war. There are no further details at this time.

Reporter: You also spoke publicly about Putin’s illness. Does he really have cancer?

Budanov: Yes, we fully confirm this information. He has several serious illnesses, one of which is cancer. But it is not worth hoping that Putin will die tomorrow. He has at least a few more years. Like it or not, but it’s true.

Reporter: What is his psycho-emotional state?

Budanov: Here we can argue a lot about the state of the dictator, who thought that in three days he would capture the whole country and raise the Russian flag on the administration building in Kyiv. And in the third month [of the war], declaring that he has the second best (and sometimes he says the best) army in the world, but they cannot handle, what he calls in his own words, “the backward non-state of Ukraine.” This is his rhetoric. What kind of mental state should he be in [to say such things]?

Reporter: I think he is confused.

Budanov: That’s right.

Reporter: Who has access to Putin today?

Budanov: I will speak without mentioning names. He has significantly reduced people’s access to himself. Quite a small number of people now have access [to Putin]. He keeps everyone else at a distance.

Reporter: Does the President of the Russian Federation [Putin] receive objective information about the situation at the war front?

Budanov: Acknowledging defeats and miscalculations, first of all, is scary for those implementing plans. Therefore, he receives very limited information.

Reporter: Since you have already confirmed that Putin has cancer, is he preparing a successor?

Budanov: This is a very interesting question. In different periods of his time, he thought about it and in principle chose, as they say, his favorite. There have already been several such people. Looking at some of his manic syndromes, he is likely to be afraid to seriously prepare a successor, realizing that in preparation, this successor may want to take the chair a little earlier than Putin himself wants. Therefore, he keeps everyone at a certain distance. And he believes that he will rule forever. But it will not be so.

Reporter: What does “rule forever” mean? He is sick, and he will soon be seventy years old.

Budanov: Look at the history of any dictator of the twentieth, twenty-first century. They ended the same way, absolutely every one. None of them ended differently. In most cases, they died against their will. Take recent examples, such as Saddam Hussein, the former Yugoslav dictator, the Libyan dictator. This is the classic image of a dictator. There were other examples in Africa. They all ended the same way, and Putin will end the same way.

Kirill Budanov, Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Ukrainskaya Pravda

Reporter: There are examples in history when members of these dictators’ inner circle attempted to kill them. Do you know anything about the assassination attempt on Putin?

Budanov: There were assassination attempts on Putin.

Reporter: Lately?

Budanov: You know, there was an assassination attempt on him, as they say, by representatives of the Caucasus not so long ago. This is non-public information. Absolutely unsuccessful attempt, but it really took place.

Reporter: When did it happen?

Budanov: It was about two months ago. I repeat – it was unsuccessful. There is no publicity about this event, but it happened.

Reporter: You have already mentioned what Putin’s plan for Ukraine was in the beginning. Since he failed, what is the Kremlin’s plan of action now?

Budanov: The general idea has not changed. Putin needs the whole of Ukraine; he is not interested in just taking a small piece of it. Of course, after three months of the current events, they are adjusting their plans and preparing public opinion in Russia for the fact that, in principle, if they end the [Ukrainian] “occupation” of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson regions, it can also be considered a victory. However, the plans have not changed and, unfortunately, will not change until we put an end to the issue of Putin and Russia as it exists today – the threat to the whole world, especially the European continent, will continue.

Reporter: What do the Russians plan to do next with the Kherson region? Are they going to hold a pseudo-referendum there? Are they going to annex the Kherson region into Russia?

Budanov: Look, they have already tried to hold a referendum there three times. They now understand that people are not going to the referendum; they will not come and vote even under the pressure that is currently placed on them. This will not happen. So now they [Russians] are working on other options, without a referendum.

Reporter: What exactly?

Budanov: Simply the request of, say, the temporary “leadership” of these areas [to be annexed to Russia]. And they want to call it all Kherson Tavriya province. That is, it is the territory of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Kherson region. Once, in tsarist times, they recognized the Kherson province with the administrative center in the city of Simferopol [city in Crimea]. So, they want to revive it. And, thus, one of the main options they are currently working on is the accession of the Kherson region to Crimea and then joining Russia as the Tavriya province. They are not interested in people’s opinions at all.

Reporter: As soon as the occupation of the Kherson region began, people massively went to rallies against the Russian Federation occupation. Will this trend continue, or will the Russians deport our people to the territory of the Russian Federation, as they did in Soviet times?

Budanov: Firstly, you answered your question yourself. Secondly, unfortunately, the longer any territory is under occupation, the less opportunity people have to offer open resistance. This is an objective reality in any part of the world, unfortunately, whether we like it or not. However, of course, our people who are in the temporarily occupied territories will continue to resist such actions.

Reporter: Donetsk and Luhansk regions. What are the Kremlin’s plans in these areas?

Budanov: If you follow their official rhetoric, they are not even conducting a war, but a “special operation.” And the purpose of this special operation, if we throw out this rubbish about the fight against Nazism, disarmament of Ukraine and so on, has no clear geographical boundaries. As they suffer heavy losses and great military setbacks, they are already preparing their society for the fact that, in principle, reaching the administrative borders of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and maintaining the Kherson region, perhaps even part of Zaporizhia region – is already a victory. They are preparing for themselves, as they say, Plan B, to justify to their people what they did here and how to show them their victory, to make their defeat into their victory. It will not work at all and will end, as I told you.

Reporter: Sometimes good news comes from Russia. For example, when an oil depot or weapons depot is on fire. Russians always nod in our direction, and we somehow do not comment on such things. I do not know if this question is correct, but do we have anything to do with such cases?

Budanov: Russians always say that it is us, we always say it is the Russians. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.

Reporter: Maybe it’s “God’s providence?”

Budanov: Probably so. They do a lot of bad things and violate security measures. That’s why it happens.

Reporter: Earlier you stated that a coup d’etat is being prepared in Russia…

Budanov: I did not tell you that a coup d’etat is being prepared in Russia.

Reporter: I quote your words in the Western media.

Budanov: You twist them a little. I was asked if a coup was possible in Russia at all. I then explained that discontent would grow, but the discontent of the people in Russia was of no interest to anyone before, nor is it of interest now. But the immediate environment, which, so to speak, is now in the financial sector, they lost a lot because of the war. And so, they are looking for a way out of the situation. The easiest way out for them is to replace Putin with another person. Say that it is not Russia that is to blame for all the problems, but one person – Putin. And to say that he was a sick dictator, remove all sanctions, remove all restrictions, start living anew, it’s not Russia’s fault, it’s his fault.

Reporter: Do you believe that a coup d’etat could take place in Russia?

Budanov: A coup d’etat? In the open it is unlikely.

Reporter: Behind the scenes?

Budanov: Behind the scenes – yes – secretly it’s real.

Reporter: Then I will ask – who in the Russian political and business elite supports war, and who on the contrary wants reconciliation? Specifically, can you name names?

Budanov: I will move away from this because it would be quite incorrect on my part. But I can name categories. The military – they, in principle, mostly support the war. However, they are not very eager to continue the fighting, given the significant losses they suffer. No matter how much their propaganda lies, it is the military that knows what their real losses are. This is the first group.

The second category is Russia’s special services. A number of them initially advocated for this “operation” in order to hide the enormous waste that went on for many years to organize, so to speak, pro-Russian people here. These were all significant funds. To hide their failures, they also advocated the start of hostilities. The war will put everything to sleep, as they say, and no one will be able to understand whether the underground was Russian or not, and so on. In addition, they firmly believed that they would take Kyiv in three days and complete the entire military operation in Ukraine on the tenth day. It was their dream. But the dream failed.

Next is the business sector. They clearly understand the losses. They are absolutely against it and want to stop everything somehow. As they say, they are existentially against what is happening here, against the atrocities committed by the Russians here. The fact is that they are quite pragmatic about the war. They lose money, a lot of money. Therefore, they oppose it. However, they do not dare to openly tell Putin about it. Such conversations are underway. Such conversations take place even between business and security forces, between business and politicians. That’s all there is to it.

Reporter: There is one Russian oligarch who is actually involved in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia – Roman Abramovich. What is his position and what is his real role in these negotiations?

Budanov: His role is a communicator.

Reporter: Who with whom?

Budanov: Our side with their side. This is a communicator. No more and no less. Will the word “repeater” suit you?

Reporter: According to our sources, Abramovich is important because he can talk directly with Putin and explain objectively what is happening in the negotiations, without undue fear and embellishments. It’s true?

Budanov: I will refrain from commenting on the statements of your sources. It would be wrong of me to condemn someone or say something like that. Can I ask you a rhetorical question – what, is there someone who follows Roman around and watches with whom he communicates in the Kremlin?

Reporter: I think not.

Budanov: I also don’t think so. So where does such confidence come from? On the other hand, are there any facts that prove that this is not the case?

Reporter: Also no?

Budanov: Let it remain unanswered for now.

Reporter: You have already mentioned the “Russian underground.” Medvedchuk was here, there was the OPZH party at different levels. For example, the mayor of Mariupol in an interview with the UE explained that local deputies from this party were spotters [spies] for Russian troops. Before the start of a full-scale war, British intelligence highlighted the possible role of Muraev. Can we talk about this global pro-Russian network?

Budanov: First of all, you should address such a question to the Security Service of Ukraine, not me. Secondly, I do not serve in British intelligence, and they do not report to me. We share information, but we rely primarily on our data and the data of partners. This is just one way to get intelligence. But not the main one. The main thing is our mining [undercover] operatives. Regarding OPZZh, I think it’s no secret to you that there are, in principle, two types [of political parties] at this stage. And they cannot, as they say, take one position in this matter. So what kind of OPZZh are you talking about?

Reporter: There are three (Until February 24th, there were three groups of influence in the OPZH faction: Medvedchuk, LevochkinFirtash and Vadim Stolar – UE). Since I mentioned Medvedchuk, I suggest talking about his group.

Budanov: Yes, three. Medvedchuk’s group has openly cooperated and continues to cooperate with pro-Russian forces, with the Russian government, and with Russian special services. Medvedchuk is under arrest, and most of the rest are on the run.

Reporter: We all understand that Medvedchuk is Putin’s godfather. But what was his real role? What tasks did he perform for Russia?

Budanov: I would formulate your question differently: who needed Medvedchuk? The Federal Security Service needed Medvedchuk, namely the Department of Operational Information, to write off funds for him. This is one of the main reasons why the FSB strongly advocated the start of active hostilities during the last preparatory stages. Because they had an inside question – what have the funds been spent on for years? And it was necessary to give an answer.

Reporter: Until February 24th, Dmytro Kozak was in talks with Ukraine, with whom Medvedchuk also had good relations. Is it true that Kozak lost influence after the start of a full-scale war?

Budanov: They are eliminated, it’s true.

Reporter: Kozak and Surkov, you mean?

Budanov: Yes, both Kozak and Surkov are completely eliminated. Currently, the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration Kiriyenko is engaged in this process. This is currently one of the main, so to speak, players of the political level in the events unfolding in our country.

Reporter: Let’s talk about the beginning of the war. Back in November last year, you publicly stated that Putin could launch a full-scale invasion in January-February. How did he plan this war?

Budanov: As he planned, so he started it. He had several options for how to implement it all. I tell you as a representative of intelligence he had, in principle, absolutely realistic options that could have ended badly for us in the short term. And it was completely senseless, as they say, the animal version – open aggression. There have been people who have even told Putin that open aggression is always an option, but it is not the best one. According to good old Russian tradition, of all the good and bad options, the Russian tsar will always choose the worst one. He did the same thing.

Reporter: He wanted to take Kyiv in a few days, and then what?

Budanov: The main aspect of his plan was to capture the administrative buildings of Kyiv no later than the third day, to complete the active military phase no later than the tenth day, i.e., to completely destroy any resistance. He believed in it.

Reporter: In the entire territory of Ukraine?

Budanov: Up to the Dnieper River. And then he was less interested, he realized that there would be no resistance, and everything would automatically end. There was to be a new leader of Ukraine, completely controlled by Russia, who would pursue a policy that would satisfy Putin.

Reporter: Did the Kremlin plan to bring back Yanukovych?

Budanov: You know, they brought him in a little closer.

Reporter: To Minsk?

Budanov: Yanukovych would not have become President of Ukraine if you are interested, but they wanted to use him to, so to speak, to legitimize the process as a member of the interim government, something like that. Stupid thoughts sometimes occur in people’s minds. For some reason, they believed that Yanukovych would be viewed better than anyone else.

Reporter: Is this why Yanukovych sued the UACC over the decision of Parliament to remove him from the presidency?

Budanov: Yes, it was all being prepared so that it would appear as if he was supposedly legitimate. This is his phrase “I am legitimate.” Transitional government, member of the transitional government… I say that of all the options, and there were well-planned options for such an operation, Putin chose the dumbest and most brutal option.

Reporter: Was it Putin’s own decision?

Budanov: He made the decision personally; I want to emphasize this. No one had much influence on this decision. I will tell you even more, on the first day of the war, he personally contacted the commanders of all groups, heard a formal report on readiness for the beginning and formally and personally gave the command to start military aggression. He is a sick person, you must understand that he is very dependent on symbols, dates, symbolism and so on.

Reporter: You say that he had better options? What were these options?

Budanov: He should not be allowed a chance to repeat what he could have done.

Reporter: He knows them, it will not be news for him.

Budanov: He knows them, and let it stay with him. There were hybrid ways to do it.

Reporter: Can you explain?

Budanov: Hybrid. It is a combination of both active action and information policy. The essence is simple – he sharply raises, as they say, the issue of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, enters the negotiation process. During the negotiation process, temperatures rise, then he [Putin] strikes certain targets in Ukraine with several high-precision weapons and creates an atmosphere of chaos inside the country. And under this pressure [Ukraine] is forced to sign the necessary conditions. It was all much more logical, and everyone told him that there were other options. But he chose direct aggression. Why did he do that? Most likely because, like all dictators, he believed “I do this or that action not because it is better or worse, but solely because I can.” And so, he did.

Reporter: You knew that there would be a war.

Budanov: I’m telling you we knew the exact date. What the open press reports, you must understand, is not always what is necessary, so to speak, through closed channels.

Reporter: You even knew the exact date. Did you report this to the country’s political leadership?

Budanov: Of course.

Reporter: What was the reaction?

Budanov: As you can see, Ukraine refrained [from a preemptive military response]. So, there was a reaction.

Reporter: On the evening of February 23rd, a meeting with big business took place in the President’s office. Everyone I spoke to among the participants in this meeting said that they had not been warned that there would be a war. On the contrary, they were told, “Do not panic, stay in the country and set an example.”

Budanov: It was not like that. Since I was in this meeting, I can tell you that the real situation was shown there, that the probability of the start of hostilities was highly possible. It was hoped that this would not happen, but the probability was as high as possible. You must understand, as you say, businesspeople do not have access to state secrets. Therefore, in a streamlined form, they were shown the main aspects of what was not considered top secret. We showed them the location of the main [Russian] forces, groups, the overall figures for the number of tanks, helicopters and so on, which were in operational areas. We showed them that the logistics, comprehensive support, and command and control systems had all been prepared for the start of hostilities. That is how it was explained.

Reporter: Why then didn’t anybody prepare society for war?

Budanov: The nation was prepared for war; the main thing was not to sow panic in society. This is exactly what was achieved.

Reporter: On February 24, there was still panic.

Budanov: You must understand that when any country, whether it is preparing for war or not, when bombs start falling, most of society will be “a little surprised” let’s call it that.

Reporter: We remember the pre-war statements of the president that everything will be fine, do not panic, “it will be May soon – barbecue…”

Budanov: I’ll answer that. First: there is information of a closed nature, and there is information that is open to all. These are completely different categories of information. Second, Putin made the final decision to begin hostilities around 3 p.m. on the 23rd. By noon on the 23rd there were still some hesitations, preparations and so on. Until that date, he could have used any option. Based on this, and in order not to cause premature panic, which Russia wanted to achieve in Ukraine, to avoid significant fluctuations in exchange rates, capital outflows, investment climate to keep at least some other economic aspects, it was necessary to control the situation. And that’s how it was.

Reporter: Then I will ask a direct question – why we didn’t keep the Kherson area?

Budanov: The case is open; it will require a thorough investigation after the war.

Reporter: Let’s move on to the last questions. How long can a full-scale war last?

Budanov: As I said, the active phase should reach its climax and then decline by the end of the year. Russia has twelve months of resources to wage a normal war.

Reporter: And how can it end for Ukraine?

Budanov: It will end in one thing – the return of our occupied territories.

Reporter: Including Crimea?

Budanov: Of course. Don’t you consider Crimea an occupied territory?

Reporter: Undoubtedly. I clarify this issue because, unlike other temporarily occupied territories, Russia has annexed Crimea.

Budanov: And who admits this?

Reporter: Nobody but Russia.

Budanov: They admit it. Well, let’s face it. They may not admit that we will get it back.

Reporter: Did I hear you correctly that we can get Crimea back by the end of the year?

Budanov: By the end of the year, we must at least enter the territory of Crimea.

Reporter: Then how will this war end for Russia?

Budanov: There are two options. The first is a change in political leadership while formally preserving Russia’s territorial integrity. I emphasize – in the formal. In this case, everyone will personally blame Putin and his inner circle and say that Russia is useless. Troops will be withdrawn from all occupied territories everywhere in the world. The occupied territories will return to the countries to which they in principle belong – to Georgia, to Japan, to Germany and so on. And Russia will begin to resume functioning as a civilized state. It will start over, so to speak. It will work for a while. Then only history will show us. The second option is to divide Russia into three or more parts.

Reporter: Which are?

Budanov: Russia can be divided into three and possibly more parts. Into newly independent states.